Rattle & Hum: The False Arguments in the Battle Over California Emissions Standards

  • Jim Resnick reports on cars, technology, design, motorsports, and marketing for over 30 publications as varied as Men's Health, Wired, Car and Driver, the BBC, Hot Rod and the New York Daily News. Arizona-based, Jim notes that he’s done well over 1.5 million miles at the wheel and over 1,000 articles at the keyboard.

can be reached at jamesmresnick@yahoo.com
  • Jim Resnick reports on cars, technology, design, motorsports, and marketing for over 30 publications as varied as Men's Health, Wired, Car and Driver, the BBC, Hot Rod and the New York Daily News. Arizona-based, Jim notes that he’s done well over 1.5 million miles at the wheel and over 1,000 articles at the keyboard.

can be reached at jamesmresnick@yahoo.com
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You don’t need a keen nose to whiff the latest odor on auto emissions. On September 18, 2019, the Trump Administration stated it is revoking California’s ability to set its own more stringent emissions standards than those imposed by the federal government for cars sold in California. The reason? Federal supremacy. The relevance? Your air quality.

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said that “no state has the authority to opt out of the nation’s rules, and no state has the right to impose its policies on the rest of the country.” The premise of the Secretary’s statement is incorrect.

President Trump also stated in a Tweet that this change will result in cheaper cars for the public and safer cars. Neither claim is true.

There are several flaws with these arguments. The legal flaw? By setting its own stricter vehicle emissions standards, California imposes nothing on other states. The other 13 states that do observe California’s regulations on vehicle emissions do so because they want to. Those states want cleaner tailpipe emissions from cars sold in their states and accurately view the California standards as better for their own air quality than the federal standards.

By banning California from setting its own standards, the federal government would be limiting that state’s right to create law it deems necessary for local conditions. Which itself looks to be unconstitutional. And here, we get into a bit of history.

Downtown Los Angeles shrouded in smog. (Source: Getty Images)

Born of a local need that didn’t exist nationwide

California has struggled with air pollution going back not just decades, but centuries. Southern California, and especially the Los Angeles basin has a perfect mix of disadvantages. It has mountains on two sides, to the North and the East. These act as giant air dams because weather patterns float in from the West and South, trapping and stalling anything hanging in the air. There’s basically no escape route atmospherically. This causes any kind of pollution to hover over the L.A. basin. In fact, even before Spanish settlement in the mid-1500s, the Native American Gabrielino tribe referred to the area as “the valley of smoke.”

During the 1940s, vehicle use rose and factory activity increased enormously (to contribute equipment to the war effort during World War II). This created the perfect atmosphere for the first recorded occasions of smog. This industrial pollution hardly stopped after the war. Vehicle use grew exponentially as streets and highways were constructed at a rapid pace from the 1950s through the 1970s. Economically, California was booming. But the air quality was bottoming.

Anyone who lived in Southern California during this time can tell you that pollution was so bad that breathing outside air could literally feel a stinging sensation in your lungs. On severe smog days, you simply avoided going outside.

Though Northern California didn’t have smog problems quite as bad as Southern California, it certainly battled with smog too, especially in San Francisco’s East Bay area.

But no real improvement in air quality came until the 1980s. That was due to more stringent new-car emissions limits and local California government requiring periodic Smog Checks to make sure cars were compliant withe those emissions regulations.

In addition, California was actually granted the right to set its own vehicle emissions standards as part of the Clean Air Act of 1970. This right was given to California federally, so lawmakers in both the federal government and state government alike understood the conditions, the premise and the need. Furthermore, the Clean Air Act also allowed other states to adopt California’s standards, if they wished. And in the 1990s, they did.

On Sept. 18, 2019, President Trump tweeted that the federal government would revoke California’s right to set its own auto emissions standards. (Source: Twitter)

The cost, complexity and safety arguments – all falsehoods

Secondarily, President Trump stated on Twitter on September 18th that “revoking California’s Federal Waiver on emissions standards would produce far less expensive cars for the consumer, while at the same time making the cars substantially safer.”

While you might think that meeting more stringent emissions standards would drive up vehicle costs, with today’s engineering reality, this is not the case. In fact, Ford, GM, Honda, Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, Bentley, Lamborghini and even Bugatti and many others simply build all their passenger cars to one standard; the California standard. There is absolutely no cost difference to the consumer, be it in the purchase price to that consumer or the built-in cost to develop and assemble the car in the first place.

Several states – NY, NJ, MA and VT – adopted CA emissions standards, starting in the mid-1990s. Today, this group also includes CT, ME, WA, RI, OR, PA, DE, NM and MD for a total of 13 total states that have adopted the standards set by California. (Arizona employed California standards in 2008, but repealed that legislation in 2012.)

Furthermore, regardless of emissions status, a new car built to the Federal standard is no more and no less safe than a car built to the California standard. A car’s emissions control system and fuel management operates independently from that car’s passive safety systems like seat belts and active safety technology like air bags, stability control, automatic emergency braking, lane departure assistance or the like. The two are entirely separate.

An engineer monitors emissions. (Photo: Getty Images)

Carmakers weigh in

“There is no difference between Ford vehicle equipment to reduce air quality pollutants in vehicles sold in California or in a state like Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, etc.,” Ford Government and Public Policy Communications’ Rachel McCleery told me. “There are no hardware or software differences. There are minor testing differences, but a vehicle that meets the California standards meets the federal standards, and a car that meets the federal standards meets the California standards. We sell the exact same [vehicle] in California as we do in any other state.”

BMW’s Corporate Communications chief, Thomas Plucinsky, told me that “all the vehicles we sell in the USA are 50 State emissions certified, plus 50-60% of our sales are in CARB states [states that adopt California’s standards].”

In fact, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW all agreed to voluntarily observe California’s rules on stricter emissions, essentially ignoring the Trump administration’s plans to roll back pollution standards. Building to two standards would also prevent a carmakers’ dealer network to trade and ship new inventory freely across state lines in order to meet specific customer requests. This would actually inhibit commerce.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols (not pictured) announce a legal suit against the Trump Administration’s plan to revoke California’s waiver. (Photo: Getty Images)

The states respond

Since the announcement by the Trump administration, an alliance of multiple states led by California filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration. They will challenge the revocation and defend the right of all 14 states to observe their own car pollution rules and regulations, as granted by the 1970 Clean Air Act. In addition, Attorneys General from 23 states and the cities of New York and Los Angeles have joined the suit.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said “[T]wo courts have already upheld California’s emissions standards. Yet, the administration insists on attacking the authority of California and other states to tackle air pollution and protect public health.”

False premises

But the biggest problems sparking this entire episode are the reasons set forth by the federal government to revoke California’s rights to enact its own standards in the first place. Every premise cited by the administration – the cost, the lack of need for more stringent regulations, and the underlying notion that California went rogue with its regulations – is false. And an argument built upon falsehoods will ultimately fail.


About the Author

  • Jim Resnick reports on cars, technology, design, motorsports, and marketing for over 30 publications as varied as Men's Health, Wired, Car and Driver, the BBC, Hot Rod and the New York Daily News. Arizona-based, Jim notes that he’s done well over 1.5 million miles at the wheel and over 1,000 articles at the keyboard.

can be reached at jamesmresnick@yahoo.com
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